16 September 2011

The new UK Government Humanitarian Policy

Posted by Dave Petley

A few months ago I featured the UK Government’s response to the Ashdown report, which sought to review the ways that Britain provides assistance to both slow onset and sudden crises, including both social (e.g. conflict) and hazard related (e.g. earthquake) events.  Today, DfID (the UK Government department responsible for foreign aid) released its new policy statement on this topic, providing details of both priorities and modes of operation.

Overall, I think that this is a very positive development, and there is much to cheer in the document.  The thrust is set out in the Foreward by the Secretary of State, Andrew Mitchell, who notes that

“Lord Ashdown’s report was clear: we will achieve far more in the long run if we pull together and collectively channel our efforts through a coordinated international system. Governments across the globe must share the burden of helping those in humanitarian need. We will work first and foremost through the UN, lending our full support to its Emergency Relief Coordinator, Baroness Amos, as she strives to help the UN-led humanitarian system to reach its full potential.”

I am not entirely sure how this squares with the Government’s announcement in March this year that “The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) has not performed its international co-ordination role well.  The UK will still be a member of UNISDR as it is part of the UN Secretariat, but DFID will no longer provide additional voluntary funding. This funding averaged £0.9m between 2002 and 2010” (see a detailed discussion here), but presumably this indicates that alternative mechanisms will be found (the same document was complimentary about UNDP and GFDRR).  The new policy document does talk about the need to improve UN leadership and coordination; it will be interesting to see how this might be achieved.

There are a number of other interesting aspects of this new policy, of which I will highlight three key ones:

The emphasis on resilience

There is a very strong emphasis in the document on the idea of building resilience to crises.  Resilience is a rather vague term, but the UN (ironically through ISDR) has usefully provided a definition and a clarifying comment that applies in this context:

“The ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions.

Comment: Resilience means the ability to “resile from” or “spring back from” a shock. The resilience of a community in respect to potential hazard events is determined by the degree to which the community has the necessary resources and is capable of organizing itself both prior to and during times of need.”

It can be seen that resilience is a broad concept, but it implies a high level of anticipation and planning for potential crises.  Building real, meaningful resilience means carefully targeted programmes that are built on an awareness of threats, and it requires action at multiple levels.  Thus, resilience is usually built upon a foundation of activities that range from national policies through community groups to individual households.  Resilience requires that the portfolio of threats facing a community are understood and addressed.  This is far from straightforward, but it is achievable with care.  It is a good aspiration to have.

The research – humanitarian interface

The policy makes it clear that there will be a renewed effort to invest in research and innovation.  This is welcome and of course sensible.  The main component of this part of the document seems to be around policy and practice, which again is not unwise.  However, to accord with the emphasis on resilience above, the research agenda will need to be wider than is implied here.  Let me illustrate that with an example of building resilience to natural hazards in rural Nepal, which we have just studied in a NERC-ESRC funded project.  To build resilience in these communities research will be needed into the hazards themselves (e.g. what magnitude of shaking might we expect in an earthquake; how likely is it to occur?); the consequences (how many buildings would collapse, and where; would the roads be blocked by landslides; will water supplies be affected?); and the effectiveness of various responses (could we fly in aid or would it need to be transported by road; are we better to send doctors or search and rescue teams?).  Of course, that is not to say that research into effective mechanisms to build resilience isn’t needed as well, but there must be a balance.

The second key point here is that there is a need to recognise that DfID can get a great deal more if it connects properly with both existing research programmes, and with those planned by other organisations.  Again, an example is the NERC-ESRC programme, recently launched, entitled “Increasing Resilience to Natural Hazards”. This will fund two large consortium projects, one on each of earthquake and volcanic hazards, with a very strong emphasis on end-user engagement.  This is an excellent initiative.  Last week, I attended a Town Meeting in London to discuss the programme.  Present were representatives from universities, research organisations, NGOs, government departments and the Research Councils.  A representative from DEFRA (the UK Government department responsible for the environment and for agriculture, amongst other things) spoke about the importance of the research base for her department.  According to the delegate list that was circulated, no representatives from DfID were present as far as I could tell.  Now, of course, there are numerous reasons why this might be the case, and I do not want to criticise, just to emphasise the importance of joined-up thinking and maximizing opportunities.

Actually, this comes at a good time in the UK research sector, as universities are responding to a very strong push from the government to maximise the impact of our research.  Thus, universities are open to (indeed are enthusiastic about) sharing research with organisations such as DfID.  In turn, DfID need to find mechanisms to allow this to occur, and to influence the trajectory of research that they are not directly funding.

The key to this is of course this statement in the document:

“The UK will establish a ‘virtual’ humanitarian research and innovations team, under the direction of DFID’s Chief Scientific Adviser. The team will regularly review existing approaches and identify gaps in the humanitarian and resilience knowledge-base. In consultation with other donors and UK partners, the team will commission new research and support innovations to strengthen the UK’s resilience and humanitarian response.”

Whilst this is a good idea in principle, the key will be to get this new team operating properly, including drawing in suitable advice and expertise from within the research community, and engaging with researchers across the disciplines.  I will watch with interest to see how this develops.

The capacity to respond to humanitarian crises

Perhaps the most enigmatic aspect of this new policy is the one that says:

“we need to increase our capacity, expertise and improve our ways of working across government, to meet the resilience and humanitarian challenges of the future.”


“Continue to help strengthen UN agencies in their roles as leaders of the international humanitarian system, and support the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement and the NGO community”

This is of course reasonable, and there can be little doubt that this is needed.  However, this statement seems remarkably lacking in detail or direction beyond a statement that DfID will”Expand the number of humanitarian professionals within the UK Government, and designate a Director General to provide senior leadership to the government’s humanitarian work”.  This is actually a complex issue that cuts across many areas of government – for example, what will be the responsibility of the armed services in responding to humanitarian crises?  The Ashdown Review provided some detailed recommendations in this area (see page 48 of the report here), including for example:

  • Change the funding model to achieve greater preparedness, pre-crisis arrangements, capacity, performance and coherence
  • Design fast and flexible funding models for emergency responses
  • Use all new funding models to enforce standards and link funding to performance
  • Develop and deploy niche capabilities in a more focused way where they add value
  • Continue and expand the surge of UK contracted personnel into the international system
  • Convene and lead a standing cross-government emergency mechanism for mega emergencies, using the authority of the National Security Council.

Whilst aspects of this are touched on elsewhere, there is a lack of clarity here as to how it will be achieved.  I worry a little that it might be lost along the way,


In many ways there has been a strong sense for a while that a change along these lines is needed, so it is really very positive to see this announcement.  It is clear that a genuine attempt is being made here to engage widely to  achieve badly-needed results.  Inevitably though the devil will be in the detail, and it is going to be essential that if these lofty ambitions are to be achieved a genuinely innovative set of structures will be needed.